Title Reviewed:
An Engineer's Diary of the Great War

Author Reviewed:
Harry E. Spring; Terry M. Bareither

Donald Richter


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 3, pp 294-296

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

An Engineer's Diary of the Great War. [By Harry E. Spring]. Edited by Terry M. Bareither. (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2002. Pp. vii, 259. Illustrations, notes, appendices. $32.95.)

An Engineer's Diary of the Great War is an edited version of the war diary and scrapbook kept by an Indiana native, Lieutenant Harry E. Spring, an electrical engineer in the 37th Engineers. It was earlier transcribed by his daughter and given to the editor by his granddaughter. The well-appointed book is nicely organized with appropriate illustrations (some of them photos taken by Spring himself) and excellent maps. The editor, engineer Terry M. Bareither, though not a professional historian, has done a fine job of organizing the entries and presenting the diary in a pleasing and clear daily format and has annotated several chapters with useful explanatory notes. There is a glossary of military terms, though why the editor feels it necessary to explicate the meaning of such common terms as "mess" and "KP" is not clear. Even more strangely, the introduction includes such flagrantly extraneous items as the introduction of the Raggedy Ann Doll to American consumers in 1917, the patenting of the electric toaster in 1918, and the establishment by Congress of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. There is no index, which is badly needed.

The intrinsic value of the diary is severely limited. The chronological account is incomplete, for Spring's wartime diaries did not survive intact and thus the entire period from November of 1917 to August of 1918 is missing. And only 73 pages of the 259 pertain to Spring's soldiering in France. The critical period covering the Meuse-Argonne offensive takes up only 32 pages. Most disappointingly, Spring, as a platoon commander, contributes little or no information regarding the mission of the electrical engineers in the field. We learn nothing new about their daily work beyond the obvious—repair of power stations, pump repair, placement of generators and telephone lines, etc.

Though Bareither claims to have deleted most trivial entries detailing routine daily comings and goings of members of the platoon, what remains is irritatingly repetitious and mundane. Gas attacks and bombardments are chronicled without a word of description. Though Bareither promises that through Spring's eyes readers will "meet some of the most important American leaders of World War I, such as … General "Blackjack" Pershing" (p. 2), the sole mention of Pershing during the war period appears on October 17, when Spring "saw Gen"l Pershing plodding around in mud in Chatel this P.M." (p. 107). And in February 1919, Spring saluted Pershing during a routine inspection, but we learn nothing of worth from this meeting, gratifying though if may have been to Spring personally.

Five appendix pages are devoted to reports concerning the postwar accidental death of one of Spring's men, who fell out of a train door while the train was in motion, hardly sensational stuff. A few egregious errors mar the sparse commentary. For example, Bareither writes that the U.S. mobilized "almost ten million men" (p. 1) by the time of the armistice, an estimate more than double the correct number.

These inadequacies would be somewhat offset if Spring divulged something of genuine human interest, including his own opinions or those of his fellows, or if he provided eyewitness accounts of stirring events. But he does not. There is really little or nothing new to be learned here. All in all, the content of the diary itself is remarkably mundane, uninformative, and pedestrian. Though undoubtedly a much-treasured family memoir, An Engineer's Diary of the Great War is disappointingly uninstructive to students of the Great War. Archives in this country and Europe are replete with unpublished diaries of far greater interest and value.

DONALD RICHTER taught history for nearly forty years at Ohio University, Athens. His most recent books are Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I (1994) and Lionel Sotheby's Great War: Letters and Diaries from the Western Front (1997).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.